Chances are you've replaced some or all of the incandescent light bulbs in your home or office with Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs). The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) mandates the phase out of incandescent bulbs and favors the more efficient CFLs—low-pressure, mercury vapor lamps that produce invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays when hit with an electrical current. The inside of the CFL bulbs are lined with a coating of phosphor, which absorbs the UV rays and produces light. But while energy efficient, CFLs do have a downside: Research dating back to the early '70s identifies multiple health risks associated with fluorescent lighting.

Incandescent Vs. Fluorescent Bulbs: The Difference in Light Output

Natural day light is full spectrum light, which means it contains all the colors of the light spectrum (called spectral distribution). Different colors of light affect various biochemical processes in our bodies, including the production of hormones that influence our circadian rhythms (the body's internal clock). Traditional incandescent bulbs are relatively close to natural light in terms of spectral distribution. Fluorescent lights, on the other hand, give off predominantly blue light, and can disrupt our circadian rhythms. Exposure to fluorescent bulbs is linked to

  • Headaches
  • Eye strain
  • Fatigue
  • Weight gain
  • Insomnia
  • Sleep disturbances
  • A suppressed immune system

There are also other problems associated with fluorescent bulbs:

  • While the bulbs' inner phosphor coating absorbs CFL's UV rays, studies have found that this very thin coating is often cracked, allowing UV rays to escape. Over time, UV rays may damage the retina, especially in young children.
  • People who have lupus or other autoimmune conditions, or those with impaired vision, are often sensitive to the blue light.
  • The mercury in broken CFLs is a risk factor for cancer; it's a toxic chemical. It's also difficult to clean up and must be handled carefully. Furthermore, CFLs often wind up in landfills, where mercury escapes into the soil and water.

What You Can Do

If you're concerned, follow these guidelines:

  • Use mercury-free LED lights (light-emitting diodes) instead of CFLs. Note, however, that LEDs emit blue light, which can disrupt sleep.
  • Stay at least 12 inches away from CFLs and limit your exposure to less than three consecutive hours.
  • Handle bulbs carefully to avoid breakage, and recycle them through appropriate local channels.
  • Buy CFLs with a glass cover, or add glass, plastic, or fabric to your lighting fixtures; this helps filter UV rays.
  • If you break a CFL, remove yourself and your pets for at least 15 minutes and ventilate the room before cleaning up. Use rubber gloves to protect your skin.

Rafael Pajaro, MD, reviewed this article.



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Ted Burnham. "Energy-Efficient Lightbulbs May Have Dark Side When it Comes to Health." August 8, 2013. Accessed September 26, 2013

Alliance for Natural Health. "Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: A New Cancer Risk in Your Home." Updated February 19, 2013. Accessed September 9, 2013.

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